Got vision? Get some.

vision2Let’s debunk the notion that a vision statement is a bunch of baloney. Like many others — I used to feel that these statements were just an exercise in futility. But over the course of time I’ve seen that I was sorely mistaken. Vision matters.

Considering vision can be a defining moment for an organization, and a vision statement can serve as a powerful guide as it moves forward in the world. If a clear vision doesn’t exist, it should be the first order of business.

GPS for your business
Vision should never be a throw away for a developing business — as it can help direct strategy, pricing, advertising and eventually the talent you are able to recruit. Where a mission statement defines what you do as an organization, a vision statement embodies what you’d like to be  and where you would like to go, as an organization. It is future-oriented and crafted to motivate. The statement is strengthened by the actions and words of the organization. It also can be the impetus for a value-based message to your customer base, driving business and relationships.

As explained by Jenifer Ross, owner of the W@tercooler, a coworking space located in Tarrytown, New York,  “Our vision is like a road map that we can refer back to as we grow and develop our coworking community”. As such, their vision embodies where they wish to go as an organization. Here it is:

  • “Striving to be a catalyst for communication, idea exchange, collaboration and personal/business growth by being a HUB for it’s members, the community it serves and the coworking movement as a whole. W@tercooler will attract, support and cultivate a creative and active community of individuals, entrepreneurs, and small businesses that “work together independently” in the collective and generous spirit of coworking.”

Lost in the sauce of the everyday
Most businesses begin with some sort of vision, but rarely re-visit it. Often it is simply never documented — but getting back in touch with vision can be a great exercise. If you haven’t discussed or even mentioned your organizational vision recently, it’s time to do so. This process can clarify action and direct behavior.

If you find your business without a vision, establish one that helps your business focus and connect with your customers. Keep the strengths of your organization in clear sight, expressing the passion and heart of the business. Try the following exercise:  Think of 3 concepts or words that you would like your customers to use to describe your company. For example: Modern. Cutting-Edge. Service Driven.

Reinforce often
Helping your vision develop “staying power” requires reinforcing the concept through words and visual reminders during the course of your day-to-day operations. Be sure to link back to company vision as much as possible with your employees when discussing performance or customer dilemmas. Spot check your company’s vision “IQ” by bringing up vision at your next meeting. Ask employees to describe your organizational vision and what it means to them.

If you hear crickets – you’ll know there is some work to do.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is a Workplace Psychologist located in East Lansing, Michigan. Connect with her on Twitter and Linkedin.

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The Care and Feeding of Job Descriptions

Man Watering a Plant

One of the most interesting parts of my practice is observing how organizations grow and change. Growth often occurs in fits and spurts — and the accompanying pains can be quite distracting. I find that job descriptions almost never keep pace with that evolution. This creates a unique set of challenges as an organization moves forward. Frustration, exhaustion, and even anger are often expressed as roles, responsibilities and relationships within the organization are tested.

Job descriptions certainly aren’t “sexy” — however they remain a necessary facet of any business.

Often, older job descriptions simply don’t reflect the true nature of the work any longer. Roles can morph rather quickly and job descriptions can become increasingly inaccurate. If you have ever heard the excuse, “That’s not my job.” — this may exactly be the case. Confusion concerning task responsibilities can become a serious impediment as a business evolves. This is often insidious.

Sometimes the old job descriptions simply have to go.

In many cases, an entirely new set of tasks evolves and another role needs to be created. In this situation, it is likely the “skill gap” is being covered by other staffers and probably, not all that well.  You may need to act swiftly to dedicate an entirely new position to the tasks at hand. (Don’t get too caught up with the title, just cover the gap quickly.) Have you ever posed the question, “Is there work that needs to be completed regularly, but isn’t?”. This may be an indication that a new role is needed.

Job Descriptions Serve as HR Building Blocks
Job descriptions aren’t all that exciting — none the less, they serve to accurately document the work currently being completed. Moreover, these descriptions should serve as a key reference point for all of your HR functions, most importantly, selection and performance appraisal. Overall, job descriptions should keep pace with the changing landscape of your work.  How might you select an appropriate candidate for a role if the job description is an inaccurate representation of the work at hand?

Time for a review? Consider the following questions:

  • Have the number of employees in your organization increased dramatically over the past year?
  • Are you offering a new product or type of service?
  • Has the size of your customer base changed?
  • Does your organization have a new reporting obligation to a parent company?

A “yes” to any of these questions, could signal that the collective group of tasks in your organization has changed — and it is time for a review of your job descriptions, as well. Gather current descriptions and carefully consider them. Is there a current (and complete) job description for all roles? Are all task areas represented? Are the responsibilities listed, accurate? Be sure these questions are answered and revise your descriptions accordingly.

Growth and change can be frustrating at times. However, if descriptions keep pace, you can be assured a smoother journey. Sorting out “who does what”, and observing those tasks that naturally flow together to make up a role, may require some time. However, this exercise will greatly enhance how the work gets done.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist and business coach, located in East Lansing, Michigan. You can also find her on Twitter and Linkedin.

Starting the Customer Conversation – Again

No business should be in the dark about how they are viewed by customers. Because of this fact, I wrote a post a few months back called “Start the Customer Conversation”. The post held a simple message about the importance of opening a communication channel with your customers and listening closely. When I speak to businesses, establishing this channel is on the top of my “things to do” list if they really intend on growing.

Researching customer opinions

As a follow-up post, the best option is to touch upon some specific research techniques to help gather customer feedback. I began my career in research, and I have always felt that feedback was a key ingredient to a successful organization.  Information is power – and that power can fuel growth. I won’t bog you down with details, as you can explore the topics further on your own. The important message is to start somewhere.

Some of these techniques would be described as quantitative in nature, others qualitative. Choose one that seems appropriate for your business and move forward. Of course, you can always consult a research professional if you feel uncomfortable starting the process independently.

A few ideas to start

  • Develop a customer “think tank”. This is a great option for small businesses. It works well because as you have questions that might impact products or services, you can pose the question to the panel. Pick a group of customers, (5 -10 or so), and ask them if they would like to serve as a resource to help foster product improvement. Make sure that the customers represent a cross-section of your customer base. Pose questions to them 3 or 4 times a year and formulate ideas for improvement.
  • Harness the knowledge of a “tribe”. As discussed in this HBR post, there are always groups of people passionate about a product or service. In today’s transparent world, you can find them on various channels (such as Twitter and Youtube), speaking openly and honestly about their concerns. You might get ideas about how to improve what you do, from sources you never thought existed.
  • Use an online survey site.  For a very small fee you can draft a customer survey on sites like SurveyGizmo and SurveyMonkey and have an on-line mechanism to collect customer opinions. These sites even provide tabulations for you – and you can even run updated stats every day if needed.
  • Pose questions directly on Twitter or Facebook. Of course, this will limit you to only those customers who utilize social media. However,  the information is still useful – especially if you are at an early phase of changing a product or service package. Put your idea out there and ask for input – track the responses and you may be surprised at what you learn. Be sure the questions are close-ended by offering response categories (such as yes/no or agree/disagree).
  • Hire a research vendor. If you are not inclined to launch a project on your own (or if your customer base is larger) there are many great research houses to help you out. Not only will they collect and analyze data – they will provide guidance concerning the questions to be posed.

One final note

If you are asking for feedback, try to report back to your contributors. You can do so through social media channels you have established like Facebook or a company blog. Let your customers know that not only that you took the time to listen – but that you are making changes because they took the time to converse with you.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is a Workplace Psychologist located in East Lansing, Michigan. You can find her on Twitter and Linkedin.

Start the Customer Conversation

microphone

I’ll admit it — as a psychologist I am not a traditional customer service expert. However, I did spend a couple of years analyzing customer trends at a major telecom company. It was a an interesting experience to say the least. But, after a period of time it was clear that what customers were actually saying, didn’t really matter as much as what the organization thought they were saying. The discrepancy kept me awake nights. (honestly).

During that time, I received quite a few nasty calls about the shape and size of  the bills and how they wouldn’t fit into a standard size envelope (This is absolutely true). I never really did understand why the bills were an odd shape — or how those calls ultimately reached my desk. However, customers usually had a clear message to offer. Often I agreed with them.

Being open to the entire customer conversation, even the potential criticism that comes along with the territory — is critical to an organization’s overall health.  Not attending to this has been the source of many a downfall.

Ultimately, ignoring hard to hear feedback will lead to serious issues down the road. One thing is certain, if you fail to gather customer feedback regularly —  you may also fail to notice key opportunities to develop wisely.

It is never too early (or late) to start that conversation. Starting an open dialogue with your customers is truly a gift to any business. While it may seem difficult to get the ball rolling, there are many sources available to help you with much of the heavy lifting.

Here are a few ideas to establish a healthy dialogue:

  • Embrace the concept of a “Customer Journey”. I first noticed this concept in a blog post at the Harvard Business Review (read about it here). Essentially, it describes the notion that when an organization interfaces with customers, they meet at more than one “touch point”.  As  a result, organizations have more than one chance to build a relationship or alienate them. Tracing this journey — a little like picking up bread crumbs in the forest — can reveal opportunities to enhance the customer experiences.
  • Listen to the whole story. You could blame a poor customer outcome on procedures — or even the customer himself. But, guaranteed, there is another side of the story. Do a post-mortum on customer relationship problems and losses. Make it your business to know your end of  the problem. Always blaming the customer (or any other external element) is definitely taking the “cheap” way out.
  • Open the channels. Let customers know that their opinion matters utilizing 21st century methods. Open a two-way conversation through Facebook, Twitter or a company blog. Utilize the nifty polling and survey techniques help you along. Getting real-time information about what customers are thinking is nothing short of superb.
  • Utilize research to roll out new products/services. Thanks to the internet any organization has the opportunity to test ideas and products. Today, a large research staff just isn’t necessary to contemplate new product offerings or packages.  Put the ideas out there and get the feedback you need. Remember The Gap and their proposed logo revision? You too, can avoid such catastrophes.
  • Manage your social presence.  The evolution of communication and technology has demanded us to pay attention to our “social persona”. However, simply being there doesn’t mean you are maximizing the opportunity. Monitor information coming in from channels, but also set a course for the information that will be shared. (Often messages can appear trite and disconnected.) Listen and respond to customers. Your brand and and its social presence are forever intertwined.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Organizational Psychologist located in East Lansing, Michigan. You can find her on Twitter and Linkedin.

Want to grow your small business or start-up? Live larger.

Moving from a large metropolitan area to a small college town was quite a shock to my system. I recall driving home from the supermarket at 10:00 pm, noticing that the traffic lights were set to “flash only” status. At that moment, I realized that my life would change – and most likely be dialed down more than just a notch.

It was good thing and a bad thing at the same time. But, as a consultant, it gave me a unique chance to experience a whole new world of clients – those who owned smaller businesses.

Small businesses are unique
I learned very quickly that the DNA of a small business (or start-up) was quite different from the larger organizations that I had spent time with in the past. The problems appeared more critical, felt closer to the quick, and often a dream or family investment was entangled in the effort.

Over time, I saw a number of issues that would threaten the continued success of a small business as growth occurred. I also noticed a pattern that when growth did occur – certain business practices that worked well before just didn’t suffice any longer. Often the structure of the organization hadn’t grown, or evolved, to support changing demands.

Plan for tomorrow
In general, the owners needed to dial things up a notch and think like they were a much larger organization – changing with the demands of their new reality.

Here are a few trends that I have observed:

  • Informal communication channels begin to break down –  Of course, businesses rely upon these networks to communicate information about work procedures, customer practices and organizational mores such as a dress code. However, the informal system becomes strained as the number of people in the business increases. At this point structure must be implemented to ensure that messages are received consistently. This might include documenting formal job descriptions, an employee handbook and/or specific employee on-boarding procedures.
  • A review of computer software becomes necessary – As small organizations grow – often in fits and spurts – software is often purchased to rectify problems piece by piece. However, the overall user & system demands are not reviewed. At some point, it all becomes a tangled mess.  Be sure to review software every year to document what is not working and to flesh out future needs.
  • An adequate system to document your customer base becomes critical –  Although this sounds simple, I am  amazed when a small business really doesn’t have instant access to their top 25 customers. If a system to do so isn’t in place to do so – trouble will likely follow. Retaining customer loyalty begins with a solid base of information concerning who your customer is – their needs and concerns.
  • An idea management program becomes important – Even though your business may be smaller, there will be no shortage of ideas to improve the business from your employees – so be prepared. Unfortunately, not all of them will be feasible. So, a formal system to evaluate the ideas becomes necessary. Often employees are not aware of the risks or the potential organizational impact that comes with a change. Posing the idea in an open forum, with one of the business leaders present can be very helpful.

Don’t ignore the basic structure of your organization as growth occurs. Update important systems to meet the demands of your new business reality.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is a nationally quoted Workplace Psychologist. She helps small businesses grow and become more effective. Find her on Twitter and Linkedin.